The Dispossession Myth

The team at HonestReporting Canada has been on the scene for the past week, dealing with an important media indiscretion. Background for this story was recounted in The Jerusalem Post, in an article reprinted here in full:

Readers of Toronto’s Globe and Mail, Canada’s newspaper of record, got a different version than the rest of the world of this week’s summit meeting between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

According to Globe and Mail reporter Carolyn Wheeler, the meeting took place in “Mr. Sharon’s flag-draped residence in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City,” on “disputed home turf.”

The Prime Minister’s official
residence in Rehavia

In fact, the meeting was held at the prime minister’s residence in the Rehavia neighborhood of the capital, where there is no dispute over sovereignty.

Wheeler then waxed for two paragraphs about the alleged site of the meeting: “Mr. Sharon’s purchase of the stately Old City stone home in 1987, and the subsequent removal of its Arab tenants, created great controversy at the time. The building is now rarely used, but it is still under heavy guard and remains a stinging symbol for Palestinians struggling to hold onto Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.”

After outraged readers pointed out the error, the Globe and Mail issued a correction. “Obviously, it’s a very embarrassing error,” said Guy Nicholson, the newspaper’s interim foreign editor. “We asked her for some background about where the story location was. Unfortunately, she was not actually at the scene of it. She wrote it off of television and wires.”

Dov Smith, executive director of HonestReporting Canada, which tracks Canadian media for anti-Israel bias, questioned how the reporter was able to describe participants in the meeting as “grim-faced” – a phrase that appeared in the article – if she wasn’t actually there.

“We believe Carolyn Wheeler’s reporting is inconsistent with the standards that the Globe and Mail wishes to maintain,” Smith said.

Wheeler, a freelancer who is married to Mark MacKinnon, the Globe and Mail‘s full-time Israel correspondent, recently moved to Israel with her husband. Nicholson said the paper is “generally very trusting with her and pleased with her work.”

“This was a very tangential element of the story,” Nicholson said, pointing out that the error was limited to two paragraphs “very, very deep in the piece.” In fact, the error also appears in the second sentence of the story, which was 16 paragraphs long.

“This is such a closely watched issue that it’s getting a little bit blown out of proportion, to be frank,” Nicholson said. “I certainly understand the nature of why this was wrong, but we did immediately correct the error and she was mortified at having made the mistake.”

*    *    *

Sharon’s Old City home –
previous Arab tenants were compensated
with $10,000 to end their lease

This episode brings up one of the most widespread myths promulgated by media coverage of the Mideast conflict ? the claim of Palestinian ‘dispossession’ of land and property at the hands of ‘usurping’ Israelis.

For example, the entire disputed territory of the West Bank is often referred to in media reports as ‘Palestinian lands’ ? a term that implies all Israeli presence in that region is illegitimate (see HR critiques of this practice here, here and here). In fact, nearly all Israeli construction in the West Bank took place in non-developed areas that, if previously owned by Arabs, were purchased at significant cost by current Israeli landowners.

In some cases, the dispossession myth extends even to pre-1967 Israel. A Palestinian spokesman describes Israel’s birth in this manner:

There is nothing like it in modern history. A foreign minority attacking the national majority in its own homeland, expelling virtually all of its population, obliterating its physical and cultural landmarks, planning and supporting this unholy enterprise from abroad…

This type of deliberate distortion of Zionist and early Israeli history underlies nearly all attacks on the fundamental legitimacy of the Jewish state. In fact, as meticulously documented by Aryeh Avneri in his book Claim of Dispossession: Jewish Land Settlement and the Arabs, 1878-1948:

1) The vast majority of Arabs who left the region during this period did so on their own accord,

2) A large proportion of the population that would come to be known as ‘Palestinians’ were actually new immigrants to the region during this period, and

3) Jewish immigrants during this period bought huge swaths of land from well-known Arab owners, at high cost, and in official sales.

Yet the myth persists, as Ron Podolny noted in a June 27 National Post column:

The image of Palestinians being thrown out of their homes by the Israelis presents a particular obsession for much of Western media. False stories, such as Edward Said’s claim that he grew up in Jerusalem and was made a refugee, have been amplified by the media. (It was later discovered that the late Columbia University professor spent most of his youth in Cairo and his parents did not even own a house in Jerusalem.) Similarly, claims of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian birth were for years accepted by the media at face value, despite ample evidence h
e was born in Egypt.

HonestReporting encourages subscribers to be on the lookout for rehashing of the ‘dispossession myth’ in your local media coverage.

Thank you for your ongoing involvement in the battle against media bias.